January 16, 2010

Mike Tharp: Atwater feels aftershocks of Haiti quake

Eight weeks ago, two Atwater pastors, married to each other, led a team of 17 people to Haiti. Two teenagers from Atwater and Merced went along.

They spent nine days building a church and pounding stakes made from palm trees to set up a goat farm in rural Haiti.

This week, Dustin and Olivia Metcalf, co-pastors of Atwater First Church of the Nazarene, and their teen teammates watched images of horror unfold from the 7.0 earthquake that laid waste to the poor island.

The Red Cross estimates 45,000 to 50,000 people died.

They saw footage and photos of places they'd stood in front of in November, now crushed and broken. "I started to cry," says Olivia. "We were devastated." Adds Dustin: "People don't understand that Port-au-Prince was a mess before the earthquake. The level of poverty and what they deal with on a day-to- day basis -- the city was a mess."

"At 4:52 p.m., everybody was happy," Frantz, their Haitian team leader in November, wrote this week in an e-mail, "but at 4:53 p.m., over a thousand people had already lost their lives."

The Nazarene volunteers had posed for a picture in front of the presidential palace. It's now a collapsed hulk. The Hotel Montana, where U.N., Red Cross and other foreign workers lived, is now brutally damaged.

Mercifully, the church and goat farm they built at Bayonnais, some 100 miles north of the capital, appear to have survived.

And all four -- Dustin and Olivia and the two young men, Johnny Ratzloff, a senior at Atwater High School, and Aaron Moschitto, a senior at Independence High School in Merced -- want to go back.

What they did in November provides an instruction manual for recovery and reconstruction efforts just getting started in the shattered epicenter of the quake.

It's a simple formula: Set a goal. Recruit people who give up their comforts for a specific project. Raise money (the church staged a series of fundraisers that brought in $10,500, more than their $8,000 goal). Go to Haiti.

Get met by Frantz, or someone like him. Carry all your food. Mount up on two 1950s flatbeds. Bounce for 12 hours over bad roads. Arrive at your destination. Get to work. Finish the jobs.

Hold a prayer meeting. Give thanks to Jesus.

Dustin had flown to Haiti last February. He met Haitian members of his church; there are 543 Nazarene churches in Haiti. The denomination has been there since the '50s.

They figured out what the place needed. Dustin returned and started, with Olivia, recruiting people and raising money. People who wanted to go ranged from Atwater to Bakersfield.

The co-pastors are telegenic and articulate. They finish each other's sentences. They answer each other's questions. They've been in Atwater five years after meeting in Kansas City. She's 31 and from Kirkland, Wash.; he's 33 and from Denver.

Why Atwater? "The church," they answer as one.

For the two teens, the mission was both a chance to do good and an adventure. The team assembled in Bakersfield, drove to LAX, flew on a red-eye to Miami, then beyond to a foreign land.

The airport in Haiti gave them a feeling they weren't in Merced County any more. They lugged their bags of food through Customs. Navigated Immigration. Were met by Frantz. Bought more food in a local market, where Olivia discovered the same lettuce she buys from the Central Valley on sale there.

Piled into trucks. Drove rutted, muddy roads north. Got to where the mission's mission was.

Over the next six days, they put the roof on the church, whose walls and floors were waiting for them, built by Haitian church members. Males slept in sleeping bags in the church under construction. Females in a totally tin building nearby "that had tarantulas in holes next to our beds," Olivia recalls.

Haitian church members cut down palm trees with axes and machetes. They carved poles for the fence for the goat farm. Each pole had to be driven into the soil the length of the machete. Two shovels broke. The fence still got built.

The mission included a doctor. He and Olivia tried to treat the villagers as best they could with antibiotics, vitamins and other simple medicine. The patients suffered from malnutrition, dehydration, dysentery. The healers didn't have the means to handle the most serious illnesses.

None of the Californians spoke Creole, but pantomime and a joint sense of their journey bridged language and cultural canyons. "Two- and 3-year-old kids were helping us," Dustin says.

The goat farm was important because of the milk and cheese they produce. Goats usually have three kids a year, which makes the farm sustainable.

Besides the roof, the missionaries built 32 wooden pews, planks of wood they trimmed, sanded and varnished. They placed them in metal stands the Haitians had prepared. A line of people, headed by Dustin, ended by Haitian congregants, carried the pews into the church.

On Sunday Dustin preached. Under a mango tree. Choirs joined the service, some of them not Nazarenes. One female group all wore donated bridesmaid gowns.

The new church rocked with belief.

Next Tuesday, Atwater First Church of the Nazarene will hold a vigil for Haitian earthquake victims. It starts at 7 p.m. at 1374 Shaffer Road.

The co-pastors encourage anyone and everyone to come. Especially any Haitians in our community who can tell their stories. You can reach Dustin at

Olivia recommends a nonprofit, Nazarene Compassionate Ministries ( as a place to send money. She says 100 percent of it goes directly to help Haitians -- "our local churches pay the overhead."

You don't have to belong to their church. You don't even have to believe in religion or God. But how can you not believe in people like the Metcalfs and Aaron and Johnny -- people who have put their belief on the line?

Frantz also wrote in his e-mail: "Almost all of the extra material you left at the clinic we have already given to take care of people from the earthquake. Thank you so much, guys. I love you so much. I want to let you know that you did a great job in Haiti."

Now it's up to the rest of us.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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